The Turkish referendum on April 16 has the potential to effect the greatest consolidation of constitutional presidential powers in the history of the modern Republic of Turkey. Naturally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expects a big win. His challenge is that Turkey’s real problem — an ascendant Iran — will still be there on the day after. He needs the Kurds to help him. Here’s a good reason why.
His European friends are fed up with him, and he has few others.
Mr. Erdogan’s support for anti-democratic trends, including the repression of his own Kurdish citizens, is objectionable to Turkey’s NATO allies and clouds Turkey’s long-term need, which is a matter of unavoidable geography. Should Mr. Erdogan fall asleep at the switch, he will wake to Iranian neighbors moving in against the Turkish (and NATO) southern border. As a result, Iran, the dominant power in the Gulf, stands to dramatically improve its ability to constrain Turkey and project Iranian combat power into the Mediterranean.
Turning this around is possible, but it requires appreciation for some practical realities.
First, all major actors in the region need Kurdistan. She is the terrestrial common denominator in the region. Gaining control of Kurdish soil in Syria and Iraq is essential to Tehran, in particular, as it provides a seamless link from Iran through Iraq, into Syria along the southern border of Turkey, to the city of Afrin west of Aleppo, and nearly to the Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian shoreline.
The ayatollahs have a special lust for the Kurdish soil to the west of Mosul in Iraq, which is why they have invested a sizable proxy force to seize it. These are the 15,000 Iraqi Shia militiamen — armed and influenced by Iran — who now occupy terrain near the town of Tal Afar, located between Mosul and the Syrian border. Tehran’s ability to consolidate combat power there sets the foundation for an Iranian land-bridge into northern Syria.
Of course, disrupting these Iranian ambitions is in the long-term interest of the United States, as well as Turkey, which is why they too need Kurdistan. She possesses the last remaining geographic position open for the introduction of combat power in quantities capable of counterbalancing Iran.
Second, a Kurdish-based solution can be acceptable to Ankara.
Ankara’s brutal passion to crush the internal threat posed to it by the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is well known, and to a Western audience, Turkey seems spring-loaded toward distrust of any foreign-policy option that enables Kurdish interests anywhere in the region. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the military units of the de facto Kurdish government in northern Syria — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which provide the main effort in the U.S.-led operation to seize Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State. Ankara refuses to help with this fight because it considers the YPG a branch of the PKK.
In the face of this, a silver bullet is required — a course of action purposed to develop a persistent counterforce, beginning in Kurdistan, but one that is also acceptable to Ankara. It can begin with three elements.
—Establish a U.S.-led safe zone over Rojava, the Kurdish-populated region in northern Syria. This is necessary to help retain terrain seized from the Islamic State, but it also checks Iranian (and allied Russian) influence in Syria. Ankara demanded a Turkish-controlled version last year, but will provide support to one led by the United States if the ground force that complements it is not primarily of the YPG.
—Raise an indigenous ground force in the Kurdish north of Syria that is capable of deterring regional threats but not threatening Turkey. So long as the YPG remains unacceptable to Ankara, a suitable force must incorporate other Kurds, such as those of the Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC is the umbrella group of Syrian Kurds not aligned to the YPG or its political leadership in the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The KNC has the support of both Ankara and Erbil, and with their help raised the Rojava Peshmerga as an armed alternative to the YPG. Composed of Kurds displaced from Syria, they have been operating against the Islamic State in Iraq for the past two years.
They have only 6,000 fighters, but Erbil and Ankara have expressed intent to add 4,000 more. The KNC says they have another 20,000 waiting. The real challenge comes from the YPG, who are opposed to the return of the Rojava Peshmerga to Syria. Three previous agreements to do so ran aground. A fourth will be needed, and that will likely require heavy pressure from Washington, combined with the carrots inherent in a U.S.-led safe zone.
—Construct a permanent U.S. base in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Make it similar to U.S. bases in Germany during the Cold War. Exploit the 7,300-foot runway the Coalition Forces currently use at Bashur Airfield at Harir or the 15,700-foot runway at Erbil International Airport. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has long encouraged such a base. Ankara will welcome is too, as the U.S. presence will greatly complicate Tehran’s ability to throttle the KRG, Ankara’s primary source of Middle Eastern crude oil.
Of course, few things are easy in the Middle East, but that doesn’t make the necessary any less necessary. Nor will passage of the Turkish referendum make the difficult any easier. Iran will still be there on the day after.
• Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Ernie Audino is a senior military fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is also the only U.S. general to have served a year as a combat adviser embedded in a Kurdish peshmerga brigade in Iraq.
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